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OPINION

"Revenge porn" is abuse. So why do we label it as porn?

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The phrase betrays the true horror of the crime, says Daisy Buchanan

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By Daisy Buchanan on

This morning, I listened to the vlogger Chrissy Chambers describe how it felt when, aged 18, her ex boyfriend encouraged her to get ‘blackout drunk’ and then filmed himself raping her unconscious body. And how it then felt when she became aware of the footage, after YouTube viewers sent it to her, calling her names and writing “You’re a bad role model”. John Humphries was interviewing her for a segment on “revenge porn”, and the broadcaster used the descriptor “mucky pictures”. Chambers was bravely, movingly describing her own horrific assault. Humphries was using language that reduced her experience to something you might have found in a hedge in the early nineties.

Chambers was speaking about her experience because it’s been a year since the “revenge porn” law came into force in the UK, and more than 200 people have been prosecuted.  “Hurrah! Progress!” I thought, and then I read that this is out of 1,160 reported incidents of revenge pornography from April 2015 to December 2015. This is 1,160 people who felt able to gather enough evidence to make an accusation. Chambers didn’t know what had happened to her until four years after the event had passed. She was forced to explain to Humphries that the statute of limitations had passed, that even though she’s a US citizen, nothing could be done under US law because the files had been uploaded in the UK. Chambers’ lawyers pursued the case under the Malicious Communications Act.

We live in a world in which a man can film himself raping a woman who is unable to consent to sex. He continues to live anonymously, while she gets strangers sending her messages calling her a “slut”.

I think the biggest problem with so-called Revenge Porn is the label. It isn’t porn at all. For starters, we’ve started using “porn” as a casual synonym for anything that is visually alluring or arousing. There are currently over 97 million images using the hashtag #foodporn on Instagram. Last Christmas my Mum gave my husband a book called Cabin Porn. To me, “Revenge Porn” suggests a sexy version of Hamlet, not a way of humiliating and devastating women, and taking away their sexual agency. It’s a headline grabber. It sounds exciting, and it forces us to watch and judge the women, and it’s usually women, who are forced to suffer.

To me, “Revenge Porn” suggests a sexy version of Hamlet, not a way of humiliating and devastating women, and taking away their sexual agency


There are the perpetrators who make images without the subject’s consent, or use intimate images when a relationship has ended, in a way that the subject never consented to. But there would be no supply without demand, and there are also the people who choose to view the images. Hunter Moore’s revenge porn site, Is Anyone Up, had as many as 350,000 unique visitors a day before it was shut down. Where are they? Why are we talking to women like Chambers, and asking them to describe and relive their horrifying ordeals without trying to work out why so many people give this crime a reason to occur? It’s abuse, and even if we’re making laws to prevent it, by labelling it ‘porn’ we’re adding to the idea that it’s something that it’s OK to consume.

Most of the women I know love sex. I do. We have desires and urges, and we want the space to explore and express them with consenting parties. A lot of us have posed for our lovers, or taken our own pictures that were only intended for the eyes of a particular person. The current conversation about women, images, consent and our sex lives doesn’t allow any space for the idea that we want to celebrate our sexuality on our own terms. We judge women for sexually expressing themselves, and we tell women that if they don’t want to be judged, they have to behave within narrow, restrictive parameters. We don’t address the fact that when a woman is raped, assaulted or filmed or photographed without giving permission, it has nothing to do with her sexuality and everything to do with the fact that her attacker wants to control and humiliate her.

Chambers is indisputably brave for opening up about her experiences. If the issue is to be taken seriously and anything is going to change, it’s immeasurably helpful to hear exactly how the experience affects the victims. But it shouldn’t be Chambers’ responsibility to point a spotlight on the problem - it’s down to society at large to stop promoting and participating in a culture that seeks to control women and exploit their vulnerabilities. There is nothing “mucky” about sexual images being circulated without the consent of the subject. It’s abuse. The definition is clear. If we do a better job of acknowledging positive female sexuality, we’ll stop confusing the issue. Porn is meant to be arousing. There is nothing arousing about anyone exposing a woman to cause shame and distress.

@NotRollergirl

Sali Hughes is away

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revenge porn
crime
Sexual abuse

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